Five Days at Memorial

So, Five Days at Memorial; holy cow, what a disturbing book. We read the article the book is based on for my disasters class and found it very upsetting. The book is even more so, as it details the atrocities outlined in the article. Written by Sheri Fink, it's about patients dying at medical facilities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While it focuses on possible euthanasia done at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, performed just as rescue is arriving, it also discusses other medical centers with high patient death rates. Ms. Fink also looks into the long history of “mercy killing”, giving everyone more reasons to dislike Napoleon Bonaparte.

The first half of the book is a play by play account of what happened leading up to, during and after the hurricane. It documents the perfect storm of lack of planning, overloaded infrastructure, panic, rumor, confusion and hubris that led to the hospital disaster following the natural disaster. The book looks at the history of Memorial as well as previous problems with drainage and flooding in New Orleans. Ms. Fink also relates some disturbing facts about the then parent company of Memorial Hospital regarding settlements they made in response to various allegations. (Here's an example: 54 million dollar fine for performing unnecessary heart surgeries, including open heart surgeries. This press release is regarding 900 million they had to pay in relation to alleged fraud. I wasn't terribly surprised when the parent company is described as failing to give support during the disaster as they sound like your typical soulless corporation more interested in the dollar than healing patients.

The book raises many questions, some of which remain unanswered. If you need everything to be resolved you might be left unsatisfied. The biggest question in my mind was why? Why was the timing so strange? Why give “comfort care” to extremely ill patients just as an avalanche of rescue boats and helicopters appear? Why did so many people behave in questionable ways? Why do we as patients put up with medical providers deciding when people live and die? Why, why, why.
Even if the content of the book doesn't appeal to you the epilogue is a must read. The epilogue discusses changes in policy that have or should have been made since the Katrina disaster. Have hospitals made sure their generators and electrical support systems are out of range of flooding? What types of emergency plans have facilities put into place? One of the many disturbing subjects discussed is legislative change, with the idea that medical personnel will be protected from criminal and civil penalties for their actions during a disaster. It sounds as though a doctor could put an entire ward to death and get a hearty handshake and a “well done”.

You can read an excerpt here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a Nebula Award nominated short story by the incredibly talented Harold Waldrop, who has written some of my favorite stories. Mary Margaret Road-Grader is set in an alternate history, or maybe years in our future, that is somewhat Mad Maxesque. The Sun Dance and Big Tractor Pull is a celebration where the people can gather, trade stories, compete against one another and buy, sell and trade cars. But the old ways are slipping away, replaced by new fangled things like using horses instead of automobiles. Into this changing landscape comes Mary Margaret Road-Grader. She wants to compete in the tractor pull, shattering the cultural mores. No woman had taken part in the past and just the idea of her participating sets the people on edge.